Blogging the Beatles 55/56/57: post-breakup releases, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”

When the Beatles officially broke up in 1970, the world didn’t so much end as it soldiered on, just as it was supposed to.  It was truly the end of an era–the band that defined the sixties pretty much stayed within the confines of its decade, and its four band members moved onto newer and more personal phases of their musical careers. There were of course many fans who wished it were otherwise, that the four would iron out their differences and reconvene, but it was not to be. They’d already started focusing on their own personal projects as early as 1966, perhaps thought about splitting up when Brian Epstein died in 1967, and definitely started doing things on their own by 1968. It was time for a new chapter in their lives.

John Lennon had already made a name for himself separate from the band via his music, his art and film projects, his personal politics, and his relationship with Yoko Ono. By 1970 he’d created his own ersatz group, the Plastic Ono Band, whose members shifted with whoever happened to be available at the time. This was less of a group than it was merely an umbrella name that he only use whenever he felt like it. After three experimental albums with Yoko and one shaky live album, his first post-band project would be the harrowing, brutally honest John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December of 1970, his “primal scream” album wherein he exorcised as many personal demons as he could–his lack of parental guidance, his distrust of idolatry–but it also gave us the gorgeous “Love”. John would follow up the equally personal but much less abrasive Imagine, the dangerously political Some Time in New York City, and the lost-weekend trio of Mind Games, Walls and Bridges and Rock & Roll before deciding to call it a day. In 1975 he would give up the public life so he could raise his on Sean. It wasn’t until 1980 that he and Yoko would come back recharged with enough material to release two albums: the lovely Double Fantasy and, after his unfortunate assassination that December, the equally fantastic Milk and Honey in 1984.  His legacy still lives on separate from the group, seen as many things: an innovator, a misguided cynic, a downright bastard, and a loving husband.

Paul McCartney would have the most prominent and prodigious post-Beatles career. He followed up his official solo debut McCartney (1970) with an equally creative album under both his and Linda’s name, Ram, in 1971. Soon after that he created a new band named Wings, which, after a few bumps in the road (live, as well as with the releases Wild Life and other early singles), he soon hit his stride. He understood and accepted the fact that he could write a good, catchy pop song at the drop of a hat, and released a long string of singles and albums, starting with 1973’s ballad “My Love”, the killer James Bond theme “Live and Let Die”, and Red Rose Speedway. He followed this up with a string of hit singles and albums: Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, Wings at the Speed of Light, “Jet”, “Silly Love Songs”, “Listen to What the Man Said”, “Let ‘Em In”…all the way up to 1979’s danceable hit “Goodnight Tonight”. The band would break up during the 1980-1981 period for various reasons, some personal, some public–but Paul soldiered on into the 80s with another string of hits. This era may have also been chock full of albums and singles, but by 1986 and Press to Play his star seemed to be waning a bit. He briefly returned to the limelight with the excellent Flowers in the Dirt in 1989, using new backing players and working closely with Elvis Costello on a number of tracks. More well-made but indifferently-received albums and singles followed, including a fantastic electronica-based side project called The Fireman, but it wasn’t until 1997’s Flaming Pie that he was back in the limelight. That album, inspired by the Beatles’ Anthology project as well as his relationship with Linda during the last few years of her life before she succumbed to cancer, gave fans not only a fresh and updated sound but melodies steeped in nostalgia. His output would slow down from here on in, but he would never completely stop. Last year’s unexpected album New was a lovely treat and a great example of a man who simply loves the craft of music, regardless.

George Harrison’s solo career may have been bumpy, but he never let that stop him. Having created an impressively large backlog of as-yet-unrecorded songs, some rejected by John and Paul for Beatle work, he released the impressive three-disc All Things Must Pass in November of 1970, and it still stands as one of the best post-breakup albums. His following output did lean towards the spiritual side, but it didn’t always smother the end result with proselytizing. For every “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” and “My Sweet Lord” there was “This Guitar (Can’t Keep from Crying)” and “All Those Years Ago”. There were a few misses here and there, but he was always true to himself, rarely if ever writing a throwaway song that he’d later be embarrassed by. By 1982 and Gone Troppo, however, he’d decided to let go of the music for awhile, focusing instead on his private life and his film production company Handmade Films. It wasn’t until 1987’s brilliant comeback Cloud Nine that he came back into focus, not just with that album but the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, who would release a much-heralded self-titled album the following year. By 1992, however, he’d only released the Live in Japan as a follow-up, and would not release any further solo albums in his lifetime. He had been working on a final album, 2002’s Brainwashed, before his death from cancer in 2001.  His son Dhani had played a significant role in those final recordings, and his legacy lives on in his son, who now sings and plays guitar in his own band, thenewno2.

Ringo Starr, on the other hand, would have the most interesting and varied post-band career. After a one-two punch of albums in 1970 (Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey) recorded more for his own (and, supposedly, his mother’s) enjoyment, he would release a number of albums chock full of fun pop and rock songs, starting with 1973’s Ringo. This album featured not only an incredibly large and varied number of cameos from his musician friends, it would also feature music and even separate performances alongside a few of his former bandmates. They would always show up on his releases, writing a song or two or playing guitar on a few tracks. He too caught the film bug, becoming an actor for a number of odd, quirky films such as Candy, The Magic Christian (filmed during the final Beatle days), Son of Dracula, and more. His last major role would be in the b-movie farce Caveman in 1981, but he would continue to show up in other productions, from Paul’s 1984 Give My Regards to Broad Street, the kid’s show Shining Time Station, and multiple cameos in other places. His solo albums would become somewhat scattered from the early 80s onwards, but he more than makes up for it by his consistent touring under the “All-Starr Band” moniker, playing beside all his musician friends in a hit-filled revue.

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The Beatles’ music itself never really fell from the spotlight in the 70s, for varying reasons. As EMI owned their music for a long time to come, they would occasionally release compilations to satisfy public demand and keep the band in the limelight. Starting with 1973’s dual compilations 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 (aka the “red” and “blue” albums respectively, for their colored covers that reproduced the iconic Please Please Me/Get Back photos), there would be at least one new compilation every couple of years all the way up to 1982’s 20 Greatest Hits. Some of them, like Rock n’ Roll Music, were obvious cash-ins, but others such as the excellent Love Songs (featuring the brilliant Richard Avedon band photo from a 1967 issue of Look on its cover and inlay) and the curious Rarities made up for it. There were always hints of more rarities being publicly released, such as the aborted Sessions album in 1985, but they never came to pass. By the mid-80s, there was a distinct lack of any new output, and for obvious reasons: the Beatles were finally coming to compact disc!

In 1987 into 1988–most likely to tie in with the “20 years ago today…” Sgt Pepper theme–EMI/Capitol once and for all decided to release the entirety of the Beatles canon on CD. And even more excitingly, the albums were finally going to be released worldwide in their British formats, ridding collections of the endless overlaps and superfluous releases. All the non-album singles were to be collected onto two additional albums called Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2. The vinyl and cassette releases would follow suit, and any previous international and US releases would be considered in the past tense. These releases would remain the last word in Beatles music from here on in.

Sometime in 1992, the remaining Beatles had decided to reconvene to work on a documentary of the band’s history. This had been a background project almost since their breakup in 1970, but in the 90s interest had returned. They would be interviewed by musician-cum-tv-personality Jools Holland and filmed all over the place, from Paul’s Sussex studio to George’s Friar Park mansion to Abbey Road Studios itself, finally telling the real story behind the band after all the years of speculation and confusion. The documentary, simply named The Beatles Anthology, would be a multi-episode documentary as well as a three-volume, multi-cd collection, and a book. By 1994 they were doing much of the post-production on the project, and all three had decided that they were going to work on some incidental music. That idea, however, changed when they felt that they may want to work on a true Beatles project again. George Harrison and Neil Aspinall (their former road manager and later business manager) had known of John’s penchant for demoing his music in the late 70s, and asked Yoko for assistance. She handed them rough tapes of four tracks, two of which would become the all-new Beatles tracks in over two decades.

This would pose a bit of a problem, however: how to record as the Beatles, when it simply wasn’t the Beatles without all four members?

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Single: “Free As a Bird”
Released: 4 December 1995

“Free As a Bird” started life as one of John’s countless demos that he recorded throughout the 1970s, this one arriving sometime in 1977 during his tenure as stay-at-home dad at their Manhattan apartment, the Dakota. It’s somewhat of a slow and meandering song, but it’s got all the qualities of a true Lennon original: it contains a number of fascinating chord changes, its lyrics are wistful and heartfelt, and despite its somewhat somber melody, it’s truly a hopeful tune. And once the other three fleshed it out into a complete song, it contains some of the most breathtaking sounds and production since the days of Abbey Road. Ably co-produced by former Electric Light Orchestra frontman and fellow Traveling Wilbury (and huge Beatles fan!) Jeff Lynne, it is one of their strongest tracks ever, and with good reason: this is the Beatles of 1994-95, influenced not only by their old sounds but by their combined solo output. It’s equal parts Abbey Road, Double Fantasy, Flowers in the Dirt, Traveling Wilburys, and Time Takes Time, all in one four-and-a-half minute track.

The answer to the above problem was in the form of a few cassettes from John’s demo collection, handed over from Yoko to Paul. The band took this project very seriously; if any of the members disliked what they heard, they would not release it. There was also the trick of taking a homemade recording of somewhat dubious quality, and supplementing it with a full band in the studio. They would rely on their old studio tricks for this: the recording would be processed to as clear quality as possible, vocals beefed up by Paul and George, and the arrangement would be supplemented by bridges and a few different chord changes by them as well. The new lyrics turned the theme from one of John’s “I feel just fine at home doing little at all” lyrics into an altogether different one; it now became a wistful song of remembrance–similar to John’s “In My Life”, it became one of both sadness and hope.  And luckily, all three members felt the end result was fantastic.  Even Ringo commented that “it sounds like them” (meaning his old band)!

A whimsical video was created for the song, directed by Joe Pytka, and was originally used as a supplemental piece to the Anthology television airing. The video is chock full of visual cues of Beatles songs and history. We see shots of the band at the Cavern, all the lonely people crossing the Liverpool docks heading for work, eggmen making their deliveries, pretty nurses selling poppies from a tray, a long and winding road, a helter skelter…the list goes on, eighty to a hundred visual cues coming up throughout. It’s a fantastic feast for the eyes and a hell of a lot of fun for the fan who has waited decades for this moment, to hear and see something new again.

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Single: “Real Love”
Released: 4 March 1996

After recording “Free As a Bird”, they chose the somewhat easier track “Real Love”. This one was nearly complete and its demo version had already been released officially on the soundtrack to the 1988 documentary Imagine John Lennon, and they did not need to spend nearly as much time working on it. Once again they’d needed to clean up the cassette and punch up John’s singing by having Paul sing alongside, and John’s guitar playing was supplemented by both Paul and George. It’s not nearly as strong a track as “Free As a Bird”, but it’s definitely catchier and therefore received more airplay than the previous. John’s composition is lighter and brighter, perhaps influenced by the more positive songs he’d written for both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey, and the end result with the rest of the band is very indicative of the poppier sound of perhaps Rubber Soul. It definitely sounds like an earlier-era track composition-wise. Though the band did enjoy working on this recording as well, it seemed they were not as excited about it as the previous one, perhaps due to the fact that it was for the most part an almost-complete track; at this point they were merely session men completing it.

The video for this track showed up on a later episode of the Anthology airing, and is a much more straightforward visual. Half of it contains footage of the three members recording the track at Paul’s studio in Sussex, the other half being a mystical visual of a white piano–hinting at the same one connected to John and seen in the “Imagine” video–rising up from a pool of water and flying up into the air alongside other instruments and objects. A slow motion sequence of the band’s profiles shows up about halfway through, using footage from John’s film Smile and supplementing it with the slowly smiling faces of Paul, George and Ringo.  It’s an uplifting performance, and in its own way it’s a heartfelt nod to their long-missed, much-loved best friend and former bandmate.

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“Free As a Bird” would be the lead-off track on the first Anthology cd, which would be released 21 November 1995, and “Real Love” would lead off the second volume, which was released on 18 March 1996. The two other possible “new” tracks, “Grow Old with Me” (originally on Milk and Honey) and “Now and Then” (unreleased but found on many a bootleg) were not followed up on, although a brief tryout was attempted on “Now and Then” but never recorded. The third Anthology cd would arrive on 28 October 1996, sans any new track. These two songs would remain the last new Beatles tracks recorded and released.  The three volumes however did contain a shockingly large amount of previously officially released recordings, including at least a dozen or so tracks that were recorded for albums but ultimately left off.  This series pretty much clears out the closet, leaving only a scant few remaining tracks unheard by the public.

The Anthology project effectively turned Apple Records back into a living entity, and a long stretch of projects began in earnest. In 1994, we were treated to a fine collection of songs recorded during their frequent visits to BBC Radio (a second volume would arrive years later in 2013). In 1999, a major remastering of the 1968 film Yellow Submarine would be released, and would also treat fans to an altogether new experience: its tie-in album, Yellow Submarine Songtrack, released 13 September of that year, would be the only collection of Beatles tracks completely remastered to multiple tracks. The result is a bit odd, as many of the songs were originally on four tracks and thus sounds a bit empty, but on the other hand, the songs were finally given a lot of breathing room and one can hear many different facets otherwise unavailable.

On 13 November 2000 the new compilation 1 arrived, a collection of songs that would hit Number One on the charts either in the US or in the UK (or both). Exactly three years later, the album Let It Be…Naked popped up, a fascinating look at the band’s final album reimagined without Phil Spector’s overwrought meddling. Some songs retained their Spectorization, such as the creative editing/lengthening of “I Me Mine”, though others like “The Long and Winding Road” and “Across the Universe” finally saw the light as intended, without the sappy strings and choruses.

In 2004 and 2006, Capitol released the two The Capitol Albums box sets, containing the first eight American albums (minus A Hard Day’s Night, originally released on United Artists Records) in their unique remixes. Also in 2006, right around the same time as the mash-up craze, the famed dance/performance troupe Cirque du Soleil created a show called Love, containing nearly all-new mixes and mashups of Beatles tracks and spearheaded by George Martin’s son Giles.

On 9 September 2009, the world was treated to something even better: official Beatles remasters. Although their albums had been lightly touched up and slightly modified over the years as deemed necessary, mainly by George Martin, they had never had such a complete overhaul starting from the original master tapes. They were a significant improvement over the original cd masters–cleaned up and clarified, properly balanced and equalized, prepared for the new generation fans and audiophiles. Both the stereo and mono mixes were given the process and released in glorious box sets reproducing the original album covers, and in some cases even their inner sleeves. The 1987 cd editions were phased out and replaced by the stereo versions of these albums, which have become the standard.

In 2012, the Beatles’ catalog finally got its electronic day in the sun as mp3s, available exclusively (and some say ironically) through iTunes, which later in the year releases a special collection of the band’s loudest tracks, fittingly entitled Tomorrow Never Knows. At the end of 2013 an odd iTunes-only release created solely to circumvent copyright issues sneaks out called The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963, filled with Please Please Me-era alternate takes and BBC recordings. And lastly, the US discography gets another box set release in 2014 (on my birthday, no less). The US Albums is a curious release in that it faithfully reproduces all the albums unique to the US, this time including A Hard Day’s Night as well as The Beatles’ Story (a 1964 documentary album), Yesterday and Today, and Hey Jude, right down to the inner paper sleeves…but contain all the remastered versions, rather than the US remixes that were evident on the 2004/06 box sets.  It’s generally a box set for completists, but it’s well worth it for those interested.

And lastly, Paul and Ringo themselves are continuing to play Beatles songs live on tour to this day.

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And in the end…

The band may have broken up over 40 years ago–a year before I was born–but it’s evident that their legacy lives on, as strong and healthy as it always has been. They may not show up on the radio nearly as often as they may have in the 1970s and 1980s, but they continue to be one of the most-loved, most influential, and most important bands in the genre of rock music. Other bands have come and gone that are of equal status, of course. Other bands have also changed the face of music in one way or another, have inspired countless wannabes to pick up an instrument or write a song of their own. The Beatles are merely one of the first in a long line, founding fathers in this particular format of popular music.

They’ve influenced me, inspired me, frustrated me, and been part of my life’s soundtrack since I was around five years old. They’re still one of my top favorite bands ever. When I started writing this series, I made it a point to also learn how to play a number of the songs on guitar. I expected to just know a few more songs in the process, but instead I actually started learning a number of things: unconventional chords, interesting chord changes, how the parts of a melody work together, and how a number of sometimes completely disparate parts make up a unified whole. That last part in particular is of interest, as it made me think more seriously about my writing in general. In seeing how the Beatles deftly created their songs, I now saw how I could make my own prose better. In seeing how they created not just a number of songs but a complete and cohesive album, I now all the moving parts of my stories and make them a complete and cohesive novel. And lastly, I even learned how to listen to music even closer, to not so much analyze it as figure out how they put it together, the flourishes, the creative timing, the dissonance and the dualities.

The Beatles were one hell of a creative band, and in retrospect, I think that simple point is why they’ve stayed with me all these years.

2 thoughts on “Blogging the Beatles 55/56/57: post-breakup releases, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”

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